If there's one thing all sports fans can agree on it's the evils of blackouts. Not being able to watch your favorite team on television solely because of your zipcode is a terrible feeling. By far the worst element of the Columbus Crew's controversial local TV deal with Time Warner Cable was the blackout rules that went with it. As the backlash against the team has continued to percolate, the reasoning for Crew fans being blacked out by the team is the cause for major questions.
Two days before the beginning of the MLS season, and after months of negotiations, the Crew finally signed a local television deal with Time Warner Cable Sports Channel. As part of the deal with TWC, Crew fans living within 75 miles of the stadium are being blacked out from home AND away Crew games on subscription services MLS Live and MLS Direct Kick. To make a long story short, for Crew fans in central Ohio that means no TWC = no Crew games.
Disgruntled fans are still bombarding the Crew's social media pages with angry comments about the awful TWC deal. Even on this Facebook post showing highlights of the Crew's 3-0 win at DC United, most of the comments are related to the TWC blackout. After getting annihilated for days, the team has finally offered a response to the anger of their fans. However, these responses have only created more confusion and mistrust.
At the center of the issue is the Crew blacking out their non-TWC fans in their home market. Remarkably, even after an immense backlash that resonated nationwide with all sports fans that have had to deal with terrible blackout policies, Crew President Mark McCullers doubled down on telling fans they needed to switch cable providers to Time Warner Cable to watch games. McCullers also tried to pass the buck on the 75 mile blackout back onto Major League Soccer saying it was "league-mandated" in a Q&A on the Crew website:
"If you're outside the League-mandated 75-mile radius from Crew Stadium, then you will have the opportunity to access matches through MLS Direct Kick and also through MLS Live."
McCullers has also used the "league-mandated" line to disaffected fans on Twitter.
@RoleModel83 No black outs outside of league-mandated 75 mile radius
— Mark McCullers (@CrewPrez) March 6, 2014
However, another Crew executive paints a very different picture. In an interview with MLSSoccer.com, Crew senior vice president of sales and marketing Mike Malo implies that the blackout was a part of negotiations with Time Warner and that TWC "wanted exclusivity."
“We did try to negotiate some of those things, but we were not successful,” he said. “Obviously with [Time Warner Sports Channel] being our exclusive home, they wanted to have the exclusive home territory.”
One Crew executive says the blackout is mandated by MLS. Another says TWC wanted exclusive home territory, implying that the blackout was negotiated into the TV deal by the Columbus Crew and Time Warner. Obviously, something is not adding up here. What does MLS have to say about the matter? The league's website says in bold print that blackout rules are decided by the clubs and their local television partners…
"MLS LIVE is available in the United States, Canada and Mexico. The service is not available to fans living or traveling outside of North America. All nationally televised matches are blacked out, but are available 48 hours after the match in the archives. Local broadcast blackouts are set by the clubs and their broadcast partners."
The MLS website even provides a very helpful list of individual blackout policies for each club. Many of whom (Chicago, Montreal New England, Philadelphia, San Jose, and others) have no local blackouts.
In addressing this troubling discrepancy, McCullers implied the league wasn't being truthful on local blackouts to the Columbus Dispatch, saying "I don't think that language is completely accurate."
The evidence simply does not support that claim from McCullers. An MLS spokesperson tells Awful Announcing "the league does not mandate blackouts."
The lack of clear answers from McCullers and the Crew front office is very disconcerting. If several MLS teams don't have local blackouts, and the league says it does not mandate blackouts, then how can McCullers say the blackout of non-TWC subscribing Crew fans is "league-mandated"? From the surface it appears that the Crew front office is trying to offload the anger of blacked out fans back to the league, even though MLS has confirmed that's not the case.
Columbus Crew fans currently being blacked out from watching their team play 33 of 34 league games this year by the team deserve better than this.
Crew owner Anthony Precourt has finally tweeted about the TV deal and spoke of "limited options" and "tough tradeoffs" but made no mention of blacking out half his fanbase. Furthermore, an additional open letter to fans from McCullers on the Crew website neglected to address the blackout. The team must do everything they can to lift the blackout, like several other MLS teams have done, or risk losing alienated fans completely.
At the very least, the Columbus Crew front office can start telling fans the full truth about why they are being blacked out.